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How to endure winter if your neighbors are polar bears

MOSCOW, March 19. /TASS/ When a student at the Northern Arctic Federal University, Andrei Kunnikov could not imagine he would head a polar station and that lessons in high-latitude Arctic Geography would be outside classrooms, right in the Russian Arctic national park. He has been working for recent seven years on the Hooker Island, the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, far beyond the Polar Circle. There, he manages the polar station, welcomes tourists and gets along with polar bears.

Edge of light

Franz Josef Land is a true edge of light: first of all, figuratively, it is Russia’s and Eurasia’s northernmost land, and, secondly, the polar day continues there through summer, so literally it is an edge of light. No wonder, solar energy is very effective there, when the sky is lit day in and day out.

"When I was about to graduate from the Geography Department, I did realize that Franz Josef Land is an edge of light, but I could not imagine that edge is so great," Andrei said with a smile. "When in the army, I was beyond the Polar Circle, near Murmansk, and I thought winds there were cold and freezing, but later on I realized those were not winds, just a light breeze. Back then, I could not imagine I would return to Murmansk in only a year to walk again by the aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, since she docks together with the 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker."

Since 2012, Andrei works on the Hooker Iceland. He arrives there in early summer to return home in September - October, when Franz Josef Land gets under a blanket of winter and polar night.

Explorer Georgy Sedov opened the Tikhaya ("Quiet" in Russian) Bay in 1913. The locals call it just Tikhaya.

"Tikhaya for me was an incidental choice: in 2012, I was about to go to the Cape Zhelaniya on Novaya Zemlya, I received a foreign passport since I was to open and close the border, but absolutely incidentally I was put on a plane to Zemlya Aleksandry (Alexandra Land, the archipelago’s westernmost island - TASS), and further on I took a bulk, which in an hour and a half took me to Tikhaya, where I stayed…"

Back then, due to the weather a colleague, who was about to head the station, could not be delivered, and "this is how Tikhaya has chosen me."

Photographer Nikolay Gernet met Andrey in 2013 during a Russian-American expedition on board the Polaris research vessel.

Bagmobile, or how to clean 80 tonnes of waste by hand

By that time, cleaning at the polar station was in full swing; and annual expeditions, led by Kunnikov, dug the station’s houses from under the snow.

"For my first trip to Tikhaya, I had on me metal cookware: I did not doubt I would cook there on open fire. We all realized we are landing practically in the middle of nowhere, nobody had been there for 50 years," he said. "The station was in a horrible condition, and the trick was to find at least one house, which was not stuck with snow, and where we could stay overnight. We throw the snow into the corner, and fall asleep in sleeping bags. Nowadays, everything is absolutely different, of course. Now, we have good conditions for a field base, for a season, but everything began from just one house."

The Hooker Island is among Franz Josef Land’s six islands, which underwent the Arctic cleaning - a campaign to remove the waste, left there from the Soviet times. On the Hooker Island, using heavy machines was impossible as the station is located on rocky terraces.

"In 2013, our guys made special sledges from barrels - we called them bagmobiles, as we used one-cubic-meter bags," he told TASS. "We pulled those sledges, which carried the sacks. We collected more than 200 sacks of waste - the total weight was, I believe, more than 80 tonnes."

Polar bears are not the biggest fear

Polar bears for people working at a polar station are nothing special. It’s a routine, a part of polar life.

"Of course, it is fearful that bears are nearby all the time. I have never said I am not afraid, I always repeat I am not afraid of anyone as much as of polar bears," saying this Andrei is absolutely serious. "Though I am a hunter, but I fear very much, and I keep telling everyone we must be on guard. It is fearful to wake up early in the morning from gunshots if a bear breaks into the window of the neighboring house."

"Or, here is what’s happened this year, when we haven’t seen bears for more than a month. We got relaxed, would walk from house to house without turning around every three seconds, like we should do. So, here we are having dinner, lift the eyes and see - here it is, right behind the window! I can’t say, from where they appear," Andrey snaps his fingers. "Must be like a trick. And here it is next to you!"

Anyway, Andrey tells us not only horrors, but also funny "bear" stories. For example, once a bear gets into a house and steals a bucket of cabbage, and it does it so accurately that the lid does not clank. "In the morning, we see the bucket outdoors, it’s empty, and we are guessing what could’ve happened," Andrey said. "Then we look around and see - here it is, sitting right out there!"

The most horrible thing, the explorer continued, is when something happens on the mainland, and you are here, unable to do anything. "When somebody calls saying one of our men has lost a relative, and you know - we here are all with weapons. And, besides, it’s impossible to get out from here in emergency, and you have to say everything to him somehow, face to face, while he is working now, or having dinner, with no bad thoughts, and here you realize you must sit nearby and tell everything to him. This is horrible. I wish no one had to experience anything like this…"

The word "responsibility" here becomes extremely meaningful, as at times responsibility is for people’s health and even lives.

"Listen what’s happened earlier this year, when an icebreaker called on the bay, and at that moment ice stormed rushing into Tikhaya," Andrey explains that if the bay is filled with ice, a boat may be cut off both the vessel and the shore, and thus usually tourists do not go ashore in such ice conditions. "On the icebreaker were our colleagues, whom I wanted badly to bring ashore: I realized that if they are taken to the North Pole, then nobody may be sure that on the way back the ship will call on us. So, we contact the captain, and I say: I’m going by your side and I am responsible for taking people off the vessel. They, on the icebreaker, say - fine, we are not anchoring, I drop the speed, you get by my side, we shall drop them (bring people down by a Jackobs ladder - TASS) - as 50 Let Pobedy doesn’t have any special gangplank, the icebreaker is like a five-storied house, and, imagine, you have to get to it in a boat and bring people into it."

They did manage to take the colleagues off the icebreaker. By that time, the bay was stuck with ice. From the boat, they had to land on ice a couple kilometers from the station.

"Here, we must be realistic about own abilities," Andrey said. "Later on, we realized we were right, and what we did then was very important. We made up a system of alternative energy - without the colleagues it would’ve been tough." And the icebreaker, on the way back, did not call on Tikhaya. "Just imagine, only two hours later Tikhaya was again clear of ice, it whirled and whirled in the stream and was gone. We went to get the boat, because if only we left it, a bear could’ve used it elegantly," Andrey said laughing.

Children and the Arctic

This year, the Bukta Tikhaya (Tikhaya Bay) polar station turns 90. It has been cleaned; the researchers have made an ecology path for tourists, prepared guides and even opened a post office - a northernmost post office in the world.

The ecology path is a net of paths with directions and information for tourists. Such paths in the Arctic are of special importance: if within one day 100 tourists walk on the Arctic soil, not much will remain from the flora there.

"This is why it is most important to point to places where to walk. We continue making stone layers: they are convenient for visitors and they get from under the snow quicker than virgin land. It does not matter how many people walk on the stones. For the coming season we plan 13-15 cruises will stop here. Among those vessels would be a ship, which has on board 200 people at a time, which is way too many for this polar station. When the territory is prepared, visitors know where to walk and obey by our rules: we offer guides, marks, not an audio guide though, but it’ll come soon," Andrey said.

In summer, they will continue to restore the station, including a unique wooden hangar, built in 1932. Besides, they will open a visit center. Arkhangelsk in spring will host a big exhibition.

"For example, we shall exhibit an interesting object there - a baby bed. A few children have been born in Tikhaya. We want to invite to the exhibition opening Rodvark Bitrih’s son - Rodvark was one of the first children born in Tikhaya. The son keeps a document, which says how his father’s name was chosen - Rodvark means ‘born in Arctic,’ all the expedition members voted for it."

Andrey loves the bay. For him, the best moments in the Arctic are meetings with Tikhaya. "You arrive, drop the luggage, the icebreaker leaves, its noise dissolves, helicopter blades are not heard any longer - and here is the silence, the serenity, only birds are crying. And another thing - you open the house - and here is its smell. It is a part of you. I love the station’s upper part, from where you can observe the station, I enjoy stormy evenings. By end of the season, in twilights, everything around roars and screams, and from there you can see a wave coming from the bay. There you are, feeling so local…".